How to Get and Stay Healthy after Your Heart Attack

Heart attack survivors can expect to have four or five days of bed rest in the hospital and a week resting at home.

Next comes recovery, a process that can last weeks, months or the rest of your life. The risk of death or cardiac arrest is highest during the first 30 days of recovery after a heart attack.

Who recovers the quickest?

Patients who were relatively young and healthy before their attack tend to regain strength more quickly than others. People who had minor heart attacks are also likely to fare well in the long term, especially with prompt treatment. In contrast, patients who lose large chunks of heart muscle may never regain anything close to their previous health.

Being obese is a major risk factor for death after heart attack. In a study of nearly 2,000 patients recovering from a heart attack, obese patients were nearly 50% more likely to die within four years. And for people who were already chronically ill with diabetes, cancer or another serious illness, a heart attack can be a devastating blow that leaves them permanently disabled.

Quality of Care and Follow-up

The quality of medical care during recovery has a huge impact on a person’s long-term prospects.

Another key factor is a patient’s use of cardiac rehabilitation, a supervised program that uses exercise, education about healthy living, and support to help people recover from a heart attack.

These programs are medically supervised, measurably increase quality of life, reduce mortality rates for heart patients and are usually covered by insurance. Yet the American Heart Association estimates that only between 19% and 34% of eligible patients participate.

Research suggests that the likelihood of a patient adopting a healthier lifestyle after a heart attack is related to socioeconomic status. A University of Toronto study of more than 3,500 patients found that, one month after a heart attack, those with the highest incomes were significantly less likely to smoke and drink and more likely to exercise, compared with those with the lowest incomes. Patients who exercised more had a significantly lower mortality rate over two years.

Emotional Recovery Takes Longer

Even when a survivor quickly recovers physically, emotional recovery may be elusive. Kevin A., 52, of Washington Grove, Maryland, says that post-heart attack, he initially avoided certain outings, like golf, because “I was afraid to be too far from an emergency room.”

Deb K., 46, of Zumbro Falls, Minnesota, felt revitalized after treatment for a minor heart attack. But once home, “I was a wreck,” she says. “I was scared it was going to happen again, and I had nothing to do but sit around and think about it.”

Within two weeks Deb was taking cardiac rehabilitation classes at the Mayo Clinic and feeling better. The combination of exercise, diet counseling and support from staff and other patients gave her new confidence that she would be able to beat her heart disease.

Two months after her program, “I feel great,” Deb says. “I got a second chance.” She asks her doctor lots of questions, but there’s one they can’t answer, she says: “What are the chances of my arteries clogging up again and my having another heart attack? They just don’t know. I guess I’ll live with that question the rest of my life, but I’m taking the steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

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